Transpantaneira dirt road and sign

Photo © Michael Sommers.

In 1972, the Brazilian military government began concretizing its ambitious if foolhardy idea of building a highway that would cut right through the Brazilian Pantanal. Although pântano is Portuguese for swamp, the Pantanal – which boasts an area the size of Great Britain – is technically a wetland (the world’s largest, in fact) whose waters rise and fall according to the seasons. During the 6-month rainy season, this vast alluvial plain is flooded by the Rio Paraguai’s many tributaries, becoming a marsh that can often only be navigated by boat. Yet, during the 6-month dry season that follows, intense heat and scalding sun cause waters to recede, exposing grasses, scrub, galley forests, and a fantastic variety of birds and beasts.

Needless to say, the military government’s lofty dreams of infrastructure were no match for Mother Nature, and the highway known as the Transpantaneira never got very far. From its beginning in Poconé, a colonial gold mining town in Mato Grosso, the dirt road, (only the first 2 kilometers were ever paved), plunges due south for 146 km, before coming to an abrupt, if scenic, end at Porto Jofre, a small port on the banks of the Rio Cuiabá. (Here, rather than continue south, as planned, to the town of Corumbá on the Bolivian border, the project was abandoned.)

What the Transpantaneira lacks in terms of people, it more than makes up for in terms of wildlife.

For obvious reasons, the Pantanal has never been settled. However, the sediment left by the annual ebb and flow of flood waters creates a nutrient-rich pasture that is ideal for cattle grazing; an activity that has dominated the Pantanal since the 18th century. To this day, cattle farms, or fazendas, are the only sign of “civilization” in the Pantanal; ranches line the Transpantaneira and herds of handsome white zebu (whose distinctive humps contain stocks of fat that nourish them during the dry season) often spill onto the dusty road.

The Transpantaneira itself manages to stay dry due to the fact that it was built above the level of the floodwaters. Meanwhile, the areas on either side – from which earth was taken for the road’s construction – were transformed into artificial lakes that, even during the height of the dry season, never completely dry up (126 wooden bridges, in various states of precariousness, span these bodies of water). Instead, they function as water troughs – and swimming pools – for an enormous concentration of wildlife that includes 30 frog, 500 butterfly, 400 fish, 650 bird, and 75 mammal species.

The richness of the fauna led to the Transpantaneira – and the land extending 3km on each side – to be declared a national park in 1996. This period coincided with the beginning of ecotourism. As fazendeiros along the road awakened to the fact that the Pantanal was the best place in the Americas to view wildlife, many began converting their working ranches into eco-lodges and using their local knowledge to guide tourists (mostly gringos) along rivers and through the brush in search of exotic rarities such as giant otters, anteaters, blue hyacinth macaws, and elusive but coveted jaguars.

Hoping to catch sight of these and other creatures, on the morning of October 5, my sister Annie and I found ourselves driving down the Transpantaneira in a black Ford Fiesta (a mercifully air-conditioned one since the temperature outside was 50 degrees Celsius/122 degrees Fahrenheit) piloted by Alceo, a local driver whom we had hired for the day. The journey from Cuiabá to our final destination, the Jaguar Ecological Reserve (located near the highway’s end at km. 110), was supposed to take around 4 hours. However, we ended up making a whole day of it because the Transpantaneira blew us away in the same manner that the Yellow Brick Road must have affected Dorothy and Toto as they followed it to the wonderful Land of Oz.

It’s hard to describe the immediate remoteness that bombards you upon leaving Poconé, the last outpost of civilization (where we stocked up big-time on mineral water), and head down the road, past the gateway signaling the beginning of the Transpantaneira, and into the wilderness. As far as landscapes go, the Pantanal is neither majestic nor lush, but it is imposing and primitive. Marshes thick with lily pads. Scrubby bushes. Skeletal trees festooned with gigantic birds’ nests. The odd umbrella-shaped ipê with its shower of purple blossoms. All of it dwarfed by a vast, open horizon. The only trace of human life is the road itself, which becomes a hypnotic red line as the kilometers and hours tick by.

What the Transpantaneira lacks in terms of people, it more than makes up for in terms of wildlife. Hundreds of cracked, scaly jacarés (caimans), some with their jaws gaping open, sunning themselves in groups or floating log-like in lakes, only their eyes visible amidst the reeds. Entire families of red-haired capybaras shuffling along in search of puddles, their rotund butts covered in bullseyes of cool creamy mud. Graceful marsh deer grazing in the grass. Red-coated coatis ambling unhurriedly across the road. And the mythical looking birds. Gigantic, multicolored, and fantastically long-legged. Solitary, in pairs, or in great astounding flocks, they sit on branches, stand statue-like in the water, and take flight like feathered airplanes in slow motion .

When we first hit the Transpantaneira, Alceo told us to just say the word and he would stop wherever we wanted. At first, we were shy to take him up on his offer. However, as we went deeper into the Pantanal, and the wildlife became more frequent, we couldn’t resist stopping and getting out of the car to take pictures or to merely ogle, transfixed, at a bird or beast standing meters away, completely unruffled by our presence.

As children, Annie and I lived in Kenya for 2 years; as such, we’re no strangers to wildlife on a grand scale. But unlike the game parks of our youth – where we could drive for hours without catching sight of a lion or giraffe – the Pantanal’s fauna, while smaller, was so much more dense and in our face. The wilderness itself seemed more “intense”.

In Africa, when we drove through game parks, our father constantly warned us: “keep your eyes peeled.” As we were making our way down the Transpantaneira, Annie and I laughed out loud as we simultaneously recalled his words (which had become a mantra) and followed his advice, incessantly scouring every body of water and tracking all sudden movements.

By the time we reached our destination, we could barely keep our eyes open.